Some people like to say that you can’t hate on success, and when taking a minute to look at the career of Mike Caren, that statement seems to come into play. Caren is currently the Vice President of Artist and Repertoire for Atlantic Records, for whom he has worked with for well over ten years. As an A&R for Atlantic, Caren is responsible for overseeing the signing of new artists as well as working of future projects with already signed talent. It’s a position that he came into at a young age and one that many would be enviable of, but not one that Caren hasn’t rightfully put in the time for.
Growing up in Los Angeles, California, Caren’s passion towards music came in moderation as opposed to being instilled within him. When looking back at his days as a youth, Caren himself still can’t pinpoint the exact moment that music came into his life.
“I honestly have no idea where my love of music came from,” Caren admitted recently during an exclusive one on one interview with 24 Hour Hip Hop. “My parents never were that into music but I do remember my older sister introducing me to 80’s pop. From there I started DJ’ing in the 6th grade and that was how I really got started.”
While experimenting as a DJ, Caren would practice his craft at local parties in his neighborhood until he eventually became interested in working for a record label after seeing how aggressive they were with their marketing. As Caren’s interest and fascinations grew, the early steps towards his success were just beginning to take place.
“Being a DJ led me to a cable radio and music video show in high school at our public access station,” Caren recalls. “That led to an internship for Fade Duvernay at Interscope. He was the first to teach me about marketing and gave me the idea to start high school street teams. Being in LA certainly gave me a big advantage. I worked for both Loud Records and Ruthless Records before Atlantic.”
Caren first worked for Loud Records as a National High School/College Rep. Coordinator and then went to work with Ruthless Records as a National Marketing Manager. He was able to watch Loud Records break in the Wu-Tang Clan and Ruthless break in Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony at a time when both companies had only a staff of ten or so people working out of a single room. Caren would end up leaving Ruthless Records near the time that Eazy-E got sick and gave up control of the company. At the time Caren was on the verge of graduating high school and received an offer from Big Beat Records, which was half owned by Atlantic at the time.
Caren would make the move to New York and balanced doing marketing for Big Beat as well as attending the Stern School of Business at NYU. After roughly two years of doing marketing he began brining in label acts, with the first two being Twista and The Black Eyed Peas. While The Black Eyed Peas weren’t signed, Twista was picked up and went on to go Gold in his first album.
Caren suddenly found himself in the A&R Department and had to eventually give up marketing after having too many acts on his hands. While some say that the success rates of new acts signing with record labels is about 1/10, Caren has been said to have a ‘golden touch’ according to some insiders and has made a career based off of making very few mistakes. When opening up about the key elements he looks for in future talent, Caren doesn’t hold back.
“It takes so much to be successful as an artist,” Caren states. “Talent, charisma, hard work, intelligence, timing, strategy, and a good team are important. Talent only gets so far unfortunately. Those who really make it big have ruthless determination and a very competitive spirit. It takes endless hard work. It’s easy to have some success and then rest on your laurels or become falsely confident. The big superstars never let up. They work harder each and every year.”
Over the years Caren has signed such acts as T.I., Nappy Roots, Trick Daddy, Plies, and Trey Songz, among several others. While admitting that he often keeps things professional towards his clients and that most of his close friends are in other industries outside of music, Caren can’t deny the gratification he has received from seeing his artists flourish.
“They all gave me a lot of joy.” Caren says appreciatively. “It’s incredible to see how far T.I. has come. He is an artist and a leader. Nappy Roots’ first album was special because it was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Being part of any artist’s first gold or platinum album is an amazing feeling.”
As the years have gone by, so too have the dynamics that come from creating and distributing music. Evolution is a constant in any business and Caren admits that it hasn’t always been easy keeping up with the times.
“Music is changing right now,” Caren admits. “There is a lot of great music out but very few outlets to expose it. There are so many albums released, so many mixtapes, and not enough ways to get people to hear them. People have so many options. They spend their time on social networks, playing video games, reading blogs, watching youtube clips, TV, movies, and hustling to pay their rent. They may have an ipod but unless they’re reading new music blogs, it’s harder to find out about good new music.”
Caren has also learned to think outside of the box when seeking new talent over the years. He took a chance on Nappy Roots when they were just a group of students at Western Kentucky, recording an album on one keyboard at the back of a record store. Roots would go on to sell over a million records as well as garnering two Grammy nominations. Caren was also responsible for discovering both Trick Daddy and Trina in Miami, Florida, and Twista when very few artists were emerging from his native Chicago area. When opening up about his unusual approach towards discovering talent, Caren simply sees himself as doing something others aren’t willing to try.
“I figured that most people are rather lazy and they don’t think or look outside their market,” says Caren. “I figured most A&Rs and label executives are in LA or New York so I figured to look everywhere but LA or New York. I can’t give away my A&R secrets but I can say that things have changed over time. The studio scene in New York has died and even Atlanta is very different than it was a few years ago.”
As his time in the music industry grew, many opportunities have come Caren’s way but he hasn’t greeted all of them with open arms. On separate occasions he has turned down a chance to collaborate with 50 Cent due to safety concerns while also refusing a chance to be a judge on American Idol after two initial interviews with the show’s producers.
“The American Idol issue was more of an issue with fame,” Caren says point blank. “That’s not for me. I don’t like the limelight. I knew very little about the show or what it would become when I went on the interviews. It was described to me as a new Star Search. When they asked me how I’d feel about being famous, I was caught off guard. It became very different then Star Search and the judges had a very different role. I think it’s an incredible show and an important part of the music industry and they definitely cast the judges perfectly.”
Caren has stated that the most important thing a record label can do to remain successful is to keep in touch with the community to gather their thoughts. Caren claims that no matter how much knowledge and experience any A&R has, their opinion will never be greater than that of a regular fan. When touching on one of the key ways towards continuing that contact with the everyday public, Caren sees the present and future all being online.
“Now the internet is the tool,” Caren says bluntly. “It wasn’t relevant when I started in the early nineties. I was very lucky that I was talking to 200 high school students in 15 different cities every week when I was 17 and 18. Now I’m using the web but certainly love to go to shows in different cities and talk to fans as well.”
When taking a look at Atlantic Records’ lineup of artists, you will find a great blend of talent and variety. With such acts as Flo Rida, James Blunt, Sean Paul, Jason Mraz, Bjork, and Buckcherry under their wings, it is obvious that Atlantic continues to reach out to as many genres as possible. Caren himself, however, has always had a connection primarily to urban music.
“I think it was timing,” Caren continues. “My teens started in the 90s and that was an incredible time for hip hop. Everyone’s high school and college years shape them greatly and in the 90’s, hip hop was in an incredible creative place.”
Outside of music, Caren has a great love for the Arts, reading, athletics, traveling and his family. He is so consumed with the music industry, however, that another big passion of his is the love he maintains for producing. Caren has experimented with producing in the past and has produced tracks for Ludacris, Trick Daddy, and Twista, among others. Caren claims that producing is the lifeblood of urban music and it’s obvious from the way he talks that it is a passion he will always have.
“There’s no way to be closer to music,” says Caren. “It’s the core of music. Producing is my favorite aspect of my job. Being in the room when a powerful piece comes together is definitely thrilling.”
As the music world evolves Caren must always be on top of his game in order to keep pace. In the past he has read between 60 and 80 magazines a month while also receiving nearly 20 demos day. As much of a daily grind as it is, Caren still seems very much up to the tasks that his job entails.
“You just have to deliver the hits and keep finding new talent,” Caren elaborates. “You also have to keep an open mind and remember everything changes. There’s no formula other than people want to feel connected to songs and want to sing along when they have a personal meaning to them.”
If he wanted to, Caren could very easily parlay his knowledge and experience into other endeavors or experiments. For the time being, however, he is dedicated fully to Atlantic Records and what the company’s future holds.
“I have long term aspirations but right now I’m very focused on continuing to grow our label and further develop talent.” says Caren of his duties. “I want to continue to get better at what I do and see my artists go on to greater success.”
Having experienced so much in the industry at a young age, Caren speaks like a man wise beyond his years, despite only turning 30 very recently. Sometimes not one to over elaborate, Caren closes the interview by summing up his experience in the music industry with four simple words.
“I feel very lucky.”
For more information on some of the artists Mike Caren has worked with over the years, please visit www.AtlanticRecords.com